|Missouri court rules on early release law|
|By Associated Press|
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled last Tuesday a provision in a new law allowing for the early release of some prisoners applies retroactively. About 5,800 felons could seek parole, the state attorney general said.
The relaxed sentencing law, which took effect last June, was intended to slow an inmate influx that had doubled Missouri's prison population over the past dozen years. The law was projected to save the state about $9 million this year alone.
Among the law's numerous changes was a provision allowing people convicted of certain nonviolent felonies to seek release after 120 days in prison and complete their sentences through probation, parole or some other court-approved program.
The provision applies to Class C and Class D felonies, which include most drug possession offenses, burglary, child molestation, forgery, third-offense drunken driving and some other crimes.
The case before the Supreme Court involved Harold Estes, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in 1999 to unlawful merchandising practices, a Class D felony.
Estes was scheduled for parole on Nov. 9, 2004, said Department of Corrections spokesman John Fougere. Citing the new law, Estes requested and was granted his release Dec. 12, 2003.
Nixon, who had argued the law should be enforced only prospectively, said the ruling would allow 5,813 current prisoners to seek parole.
"I think you're going to have thousands of inmates, that otherwise would be in jail, in the communities of Missouri," Nixon told The Associated Press. "This is a step backwards in making Missouri safe."
But Democratic state Sen. Harold Caskey, a former county prosecutor who sponsored the law, praised the ruling as a "reasoned decision." Caskey noted prisoners seeking release will have to persuade judges they are ready to return to society.
Mary Still, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, said "no one anticipated the retroactive ruling," but she declined to say whether the governor supported it.
In signing the law last year, Holden said it "represents a step toward a more sensible, cost-efficient and effective Missouri criminal justice system."
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